Christ and Him Crucified

Piper 2 Leaders Conference | Pretoria, South Africa

It’s a great joy and honor to be with you on this occasion. South Africa has in many ways become a second home to me. I often joke with people that you are now on your third president in your multifaceted country, and I’m yet to receive associate citizenship from any of them. Hopefully the fourth one will finally accept the fact that I have a lot to do with South Africa. It’s a joy to minister with John. I was just saying to him that I recall quite vividly in 1998 when we first ministered together in England, and I’m glad that we could have this opportunity once again of a shared ministry.

Christ and Him Crucified

I was thinking real hard as to what to share with you on this occasion, knowing that I would have but one message to share with you. That’s a very difficult process to go through. I asked myself the question, if I was to meet with but one pastor rather than the numbers that are here right now, and that one pastor said to say to me, “Just give me one sentence, perhaps one phrase that ought to mean everything to me in my life and ministry,” what is it that Iwould say? The answer became rather obvious immediately, and it’s Christ. I would say the Lord Jesus Christ. Make him your all in all and you will not go wrong. Have a Christ-centered life and a Christ-centered ministry. On what would I base such a statement? Please do turn with me to 1 Corinthians 2:1–5:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 1:2–5; all Scripture references are taken from the NIV).

Never Assume the Gospel

In bringing to you the need for us to truly know and love the Lord Jesus Christ, what burdens me is the fact that that ought to be pretty obvious to everybody, especially those of us who are called to the preaching ministry. You would assume that that is a matter of course, that that’s what we are ultimately called to do. But all you need to do is take leave from your ministry perhaps when you are on holiday or vacation and attend various churches in places perhaps you don’t normally visit. It’ll grieve your heart to realize that so much of preaching today is really but stories about the preacher and oftentimes larger-than-life stories. They are stories meant to make the hearers believe that here finally is the great hero that we’ve all been waiting for, so that when all the preaching is over, instead of the people going home with great thoughts of a great Savior, they go home with great thoughts of a pitiful man.

Surely it ought to grieve our hearts. Perhaps if it was a one-off situation, you may not be as grieved, but often by the end of your holiday or vacation, having gone from one church to the other, you soon realize that this is the staple diet of so many of God’s people.

Paul was concerned about this. He was concerned about it primarily in the context of 1 Corinthians because having preached Christ, Christ, Christ, he comes to hear that the church is now fighting over whether it ought to be Peter, Paul, or Apollos, instead of being all consumed with the person and work and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, he’s writing this epistle. He is concerned that the Corinthian church should get back to the foundation that he once upon laid when he ministered there. And that’s the reason why I bring you to this second chapter of 1 Corinthians.

Because what he’s doing there is simply reminding the brethren concerning the ministry that he had carried out when he initially went to Corinth. He says, “When I came to you brothers, this is the way I came. I didn’t come with eloquence or superior wisdom. I did not follow the normal Greek fashion of gathering a following for myself. It wasn’t based on eloquence. It wasn’t based on some kind of philosophical thinking that would make me stand out as a unique and special teacher in my own age. No, I didn’t do that as I spoke about God. What did I do instead? I resolved.”

We’re speaking about resolution in the next day or two. He says, “I resolved. I made a firm commitment that it doesn’t matter the winds that will be blowing, it doesn’t matter what waves will be hitting and beating against the little boat of my life, I was committed to an unshakable resolution and it was this: to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” And oh brethren, may we follow this man’s example.

Resolved to Know Christ

If we had to do so, we need to make a firm resolution first of all at a personal level to know Christ in a growing and experiential way. That’s what Paul is saying here. You would think that what he ought to have said is, “I resolved to preach Christ and him crucified.” Later on I will expound that, but let’s begin with what he actually states, that he resolved to know nothing except Christ and him crucified.

Clearly to begin with, it had to do with cognition, knowing in terms of information, in terms of doctrine. It was thinking through who Jesus is, his person and his work. And that ought to be to all of us a lifelong career. God have mercy on you if you think that is kindergarten stuff. It isn’t. When we are thinking in terms of Jesus, we are thinking in terms of the blessed second person of the Trinity, God the Son. He is the one through whom all things we created and nothing has come into being without him.

We are thinking about him upon whom angels gaze in adoring wonder as the beauty of his person glows before their very eyes and they do not ever feel that a slice of eternity is already too much as they gaze at its glory. No, eternity to the thousands upon thousands and 10,000 times 10,000 angels is nothing. It’s too short in seeking to know something of the glory of his person. And who are you as a human being to think you knew everything you needed to know by the time I came out through the graduation forum of my Bible college?

Oh, no beloved brethren, he is a sea that is too deep to be sounded. He in himself comprises a universe that the most powerful telescope can never finish in terms of studying and gazing at him. I plead, especially for those of us who are preachers, may we first and foremost be students of this Christ, and not only in terms of his person, but also in terms of his work — the work of creation, the work of providence, but above all, his redeeming work.

Christ’s Redeeming Work

He became man and was born in a cow shed, lived and labored among us, suffering something of the curse of God upon us as humanity, starting something ultimately of that final day and final hour when passing through Gethsemane, sweating that which was like great drops of blood falling to the ground, an angel coming to strengthen him in his weakness as he made that last mile of the way and making his way to the cross. And then more than that, we gaze again and again and again as he drinks in the bitter cup of the wrath of God against sinful humanity. We sense something of the words of Isaac Watts:

When I survey the wondrous cross On which the prince of glory died My richest gain I count but loss And poor contempt on all my pride.

Study his work, mining deeper and deeper into that rich vein of ore and bring out precious jewels and precious metal from the work that Jesus Christ has done. Again to borrow the words of the apostle Paul, bring out the “unsearchable riches of Christ.” He’s not saying that you cannot search out those riches, but you cannot exhaust them. When you have done your utmost, when you have lived up to the ripe-old age, hitting close perhaps to 100 years on earth, you have only but begun to search those depths, to drink in the richest of juices concerning Christ as prophet, priest, and king.

Let me ask, where are you spiritually today in this matter? Are you still hungering to know him? To borrow the words of the apostle Paul, “Oh, that I might know him” (Philippians 3:10). And that’s not at the beginning of his Christian life. He writes that to the Philippians later on in his life. He’s saying, “I want to know Christ. I’m hungering. I’m thirsting. I’m like parched ground thirsting for the first rains with respect to this whole issue of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Obsessed with the Excellency of Jesus

Writing to the Philippians, do you remember the words we heard earlier on? He says, “For to me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). That’s all. That’s what life is to Paul — to know this Jesus. May I add, it’s also about experiencing this Jesus so that the knowledge here is not merely cognitive. It’s not simply information coming to my mind, but it’s information that is reaching my heart. It’s information that’s causing me to well up with affection towards him. A little chorus we used to sing many, many years ago, and perhaps some of you still have it on your regular menu, says:

I keep falling in love with him Over and over and Over and over again.

He gets sweeter and sweeter As the days go by Oh what love between the lord and I.

I keep falling in love with him Over and over and Over and over again.

If you are a preacher today and what I’ve just spoken about is now history in your life, you are backslidden. You are backslidden. And it may explain what is presently happening in your ministry, because this is not for those who are just beginning their Christian lives. It’s to be true of us not only in this life, but even when we arrive in eternity — to know him, to love him, to love him back. So you shouldn’t be surprised that Paul should be speaking here in terms of this resolution, to know the Lord Jesus and to know him in his crucified state.

You shouldn’t be surprised. It is supposed to be normal Christian living, especially for those of us who are called to the preaching ministry. May God’s people sense this aroma from our lives so that they also follow our example because we are role models in this matter.

Resolved to Preach Christ

But then as we rightly concluded, when Paul speaks here about knowing Christ and him crucified, he’s speaking about him primarily in the context of a preaching ministry. It’s very easy to discern from the context here, for he says, “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you” (1 Corinthians 1:21). Or as he says in 1 Corinthians 2:3, “I came to you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words.”

So this knowledge is in the context of a preaching ministry and especially with respect to Paul writing to the Corinthians, it primarily had to do with the church planting work that he was involved in. You will recall that he entered Europe through Philippi and began to make his way downwards through Athens and Corinth and so on and so forth. He’s saying when he arrived in Corinth and saw this great city that was given to Greek culture, he brought one message and it was a message of Jesus of Nazareth who probably by that time was not news to the known world of his day. Particularly, he preached about the crucifixion, the cruel death he suffered in shame upon a Roman cross. That was also not strange to them.

But Paul’s understanding had the Old Testament as a backdrop of what took place when Jesus was crucified. What does Paul have in mind? Galatians 3:1–2 is helpful there he says:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?

That’s extremely important. In other words, Paul was teaching in Corinth that there’s only one basis of acceptance before God. There’s only one basis by which God pours his blessings upon us — blessings in time and blessings in eternity. There’s only one basis. It is not by you trying to obey God’s law. It is by you resigning your whole life and trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ upon the cross. When Jesus hung there, he was the blameless, upright, perfect, righteous indeed the only undefiled sacrifice that was ever there before God. He alone could satisfy an infinitely holy God — he alone. And he did it when he expired and said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

God, the infinitely righteous God, was finally truly satisfied so that I don’t need to go to him with an iota of my own righteousness, no. To borrow the words of a hymn writer:

I need no other argument I need no other plea It is enough that Jesus died And that he died for me

That was Paul’s evangelistic message, not only in Galatia, but even when he crossed over into Europe and shared the same message in Philippi, in Athens, in Corinth, etc. It was precisely the same message. It was so that his hearers would not trust in anything else except the person and work of Jesus Christ. It was so that when they look to eternity, on the day when they would gaze at the God who is the creator of the universe passing judgment upon all his moral creatures, they would not tremble, not a bit, knowing that the satisfaction done by Jesus Christ was enough. It was more than enough for their needs in that great and awesome moment.

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness My beauty are, my glorious dress; ‘Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed, With joy shall I lift up my head.

A Christless Gospel

Brethren, where are we hearing this in today’s evangelistic preaching? Where? Isn’t today’s evangelistic preaching all about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior without content? It’s almost as though it’s some magic wand, just accept Jesus as your personal savior and all will be well. Where are hungry, broken, dying souls being called out of a multitude to come and feast their souls on Jesus and the glorious work he’s done for us? Where? Oh, may God help us. For the sake of our generation and for the sake of generations to come, may he raise a great band of preachers.

What is sad about today’s situation is that because people are being given a Christless gospel, they have filled our churches, they are still carrying their Bibles, but they’re still going to hell. And it’s in so-called “evangelical churches.” That shouldn’t be. That shouldn’t be. We are speeding them on into a Christless eternity by giving to them a Christless religion on earth. May we not be guilty of that. May we not be guilty of that. And there’s only one way to avoid that guilt. It is to fill our evangelistic preaching with Christ, so that whatever else the people listening to us forget about our preaching, there’s one thing they will not forget: Jesus offered to them freely and in all his fullness. They will never forget that.

On the day the Holy Spirit opens their eyes, indeed unlocks their hearts, it’s Jesus that they will fly to because he alone is the Savior. May we have gospel preaching that’s truly gospel preaching. There’s only one good news on this side of eternity, only one: Jesus Christ and him crucified. If your heart doesn’t say “amen” to that, quit the ministry. There is no other.

Resolved to Minister Christ to the Church

Our knowing Christ must be at a personal level. Our knowing Christ must be in terms of our evangelistic preaching, and may I also in the third place say, our knowing Christ must also be in our ministry to believers. To believers. You see, this is what made Paul find it so difficult to understand the Corinthians. Because he’s saying to them, “Look, it wasn’t just when I arrived that I drew you to Jesus, as though after that I then started saying to you, ‘What you need is me.’ No. The whole time I was with you, even in dealing with all the situations in your lives, it was Jesus whom I pointed you to.”

It’s pretty obvious even just before chapter two, the way he handles the problem of disunity in the church. How did he handle it? Was he saying to the Corinthians, “Now look brethren, it’s not nice and it’s not good when people are seeing you fighting with each other like this. For the sake of our public testimony, come on, just love one another and be united.” I don’t know about South Africa, but in Zambia we have a very common phrase which amounts to something like this — “It’s not looking nice.” It is a major argument back home. It’s not looking nice.

That’s the kind of message that we can easily import from outside and start using in trying to unite believers who are fighting with each other. It’s not looking nice. Now, Paul’s answer to the disunity of the believers is, “Was Paul crucified for you or Apollos or Peter? Were you baptized into the name of Paul or Peter or Apollos? (1 Corinthians 1:13). It’s Christ. It’s Christ who was crucified for you. It’s in Jesus’s name that you have been baptized. He is the fountain of all wisdom. Christ is your righteousness, he’s your redemption. He’s your all.”

As he goes on to say in chapter three, “You are of Christ and Christ is of God” (1 Corinthians 3:23). In all things, Jesus Christ is the answer. Brethren, all you need to do is to go through the chapters of Paul’s epistles and you see that in dealing with all the situations that he was dealing with in the context of the Christian church, it was always with respect to Jesus Christ.

How do you resolve marriage problems? Well, I’ll tell you how Paul dealt with it:

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior (Ephesians 5:22–23).

It’s the church’s relationship to its head. There you have your ultimate example.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . (Ephesians 5:25).

So when a husband is saying, “No, I’ve given up on her and I think we’ll just go to the divorce court,” we can say, “Hang on, you’ve given up? You’ve done your best? Okay, let’s look at what your best ought to be, and please tell me whether you’ve done that.” Thank you very much. It soon becomes evident that this person has climbed the Drakensberg mountains when he is being asked to climb not even Kilimanjaro, but the Everest, and he hasn’t done that yet. That was Paul’s method. It was always calling the people back to Christ. He is the sum of all wisdom. It is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).

Feeding on the Kernel

Look at the way he puts it to the Colossian. You don’t just begin with Christ, but you continue with him for the rest of life. Having spoken about Christ in you, the hope of glory in chapter one, and also speaking about him in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge at the beginning of chapter two, he says in Colossians 2:6:

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness (Colossians 2:6–7).

Paul is using the picture of a building. The foundation has been laid for your spiritual life on earth and in eternity, and that foundation is Christ. But as you are now putting up the superstructure of your life, you don’t then go and build the superstructure elsewhere — no! That same foundation that has been laid in your life, that’s the one on which you are to continue building if you are to build into eternity, if you’re going to build into heaven itself. And oh brethren, how Christians need this.

We are feeding them with pods, with the outer shell, instead of giving them the kernel, the content that ought to be Jesus and Jesus alone. We are building churches based on our own names, our own reputations, our cleverness, and our ability to thread together nice platitudes. We are denying them of that which is manna from heaven: Jesus Christ and him crucified. Isn’t this the reason why our churches are failing to impact the world? It’s because the Holy Spirit energizes his people as they are seeking to know Christ, to love Christ, and to serve Christ, as they’re seeking to make him their all in all. There is the fruit of God’s Spirit working in their lives, making them more and more like Christ himself.

Oh, let’s throw away our cleverness. Let’s throw away our petty squabbles over all kinds of doctrinal issues. Let’s throw away all these things and make Christ and him crucified the staple diet of God’s people. With Christianity plagued by so many personality cults it would necessitate a Paul-like resolve not to flow with the wind, and that’s what we need. We need to refuse whatever the “in” thing is today. We need to refuse today’s popular fad, popular fashion, and to insist that we’re not going to build a personal empire, even though it may be apparently working for other people, we will not do so. But let us resolve to know Christ and him crucified, to make him our all in all.

Our Inexhaustible Theme

Brethren, let us remember the warning of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:10–15. This is what he says:

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved — even though only as one escaping through the flames.

Then 1 Corinthians 3:21–23 says:

So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

May that be the tenor, the color, the one-stringed banjo that we will be playing in our lives and ministry — Christ, Christ, Christ. And oh brethren, never think that you can exhaust that theme. Never think that if you commit yourself to such a resolve five years down the line, you’ll be scratching your head, pulling out your hair, wondering what you’re going to give to your people. Never think like that. In fact, when you make this kind of resolution, you will wish you had 10,000 lives in order to preach the inexhaustible, insatiable riches of this all glorious Savior.

Oh, may we all say in the words of George Whitfield, “May the name of Whitfield perish, but the name of Jesus live forever.” May that be our cry as our lives, like the rising sun from the dawn, keep rising and rising and rising, and one day be caught up beyond the clouds, gone to the Savior whom we came to know, to love, to serve, and to die for.

is the pastor of Kabwata Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia.